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Senators in the dark on parliamentarian's decision

A parliamentarian ruling touted as a breakthrough for the Democratic agenda is putting the Senate in uncharted territory and sparking confusion.

More than a week after Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough signaled that Democrats could have more than just two shots this year at using budget rules to bypass the 60-vote filibuster legislation normally must clear to become law, senators say they are largely in the dark about its ramifications. 

Democrats say they haven’t seen the formal guidance, don’t totally understand the mechanics and that it hasn’t really been discussed by members beyond a surface level. 

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Asked if he understood what it meant, Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHow leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction MORE (D-Va.) said “not completely.” 

“We did have the beginnings of a discussion about it … but we didn’t get it into a discussion about ‘OK well what does this mean for infrastructure,' ” Kaine said. 

Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsBiden to go one-on-one with Manchin US, Iran signal possible breakthroughs in nuke talks How the United States can pass Civics 101 MORE (D-Del.) said he also didn’t understand what the signals meant in practice, with Democrats getting a “ ‘this really isn’t all that clear yet’ response.’” 

MacDonough told Democrats over the recent two-week recess that they could revise budget resolutions, which are used to greenlight bills passed with only a simple majority under the arcane process known as reconciliation.

The news was immediately interpreted as a significant breakthrough for Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.) that would make it easier to move big-ticket items on Biden’s agenda despite GOP opposition. But Democrats haven’t explained exactly how the process might work, and they don’t seem to understand the process that well themselves.

Schumer, asked what the ruling might mean this week, signaled that it was less of a panacea that would smooth the way for Democrats “big and bold” agenda and more the first of potentially several negotiations with the parliamentarian’s office.

He said the language in the Section 304 of the Congressional Budget Act, the law that allows budget reconciliation, “says you can entertain more than an additional reconciliation bill.”

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“Now how that happens, in what way that happens we have to have discussions with the parliamentarian of course. And we have to decide how to use it,” Schumer told reporters. 

Kaine predicted that Democrats would likely have a discussion, but the guidance so far was “a very preliminary sort of like ‘there’s an option that’s available.’” 

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyKabul attack spurs fears over fate of Afghan women as US exits Sen. Murphy calls for Yemen's Houthis to accept ceasefire following trip to Middle East US, Iran signal possible breakthroughs in nuke talks MORE (D-Conn.) said it was “briefly” discussed in a closed-door caucus meeting but not in any detail. Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinHouse panel advances bipartisan retirement savings bill Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (D-Md.), echoing several of his colleagues, said he hadn’t seen the ruling and predicted most Democrats wouldn’t. 

“I’m not sure we’re ever going to see a ruling as such,” Cardin said, adding that it would instead be additional “conversations.” 

But there are a host of unanswered but important questions, including if Democrats could have unlimited attempts at governing through reconciliation or any time restrictions on when or what it could be used on. 

House Democrats are also in the dark, and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Inflation jumps at fastest pace since 2008 | Biden 'encouraged' on bipartisan infrastructure deal Overnight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response Biden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure MORE (D-Calif.) refused to weigh in on the potential implications. 

“We are waiting on guidance from the Senate as to what that actually means. As I've said to you before I don't get involved in their rules and — and they don't get involved in our rules,” she told reporters. 

Republicans have questioned how much more leeway the ruling, which they characterized as limited, gave Democrats. 

“I was asking Robert Duncan about that and I don’t really think it gives them a lot of extra tools that they wouldn’t otherwise have being in the majority because they can do multiple budgets and get enough reconciliation instructions out of it to do a lot,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block CNN asks Carol Baskin to comment on loose Texas tiger Biden-McConnell cold war unlikely to end at White House MORE (R-Texas), referring to a GOP leadership aide who, among other responsibilities, gives Republicans parliamentary guidance. 

A GOP source characterized it as a “relatively narrow” ruling that says Section 304 of the Congressional Budget Act, which says a budget resolution can be revised, can include reconciliation instructions. 

“The ruling doesn’t say anything about being able to use it for FY21,” the source said, referring to the fiscal 2021 budget that Democrats already used to pass coronavirus relief. 

“It also doesn’t say that it can be used for infrastructure,” the source added, referring to the priority that Democrats are also likely to try to pass under reconciliation. 

There are also natural limits that Democrats would face including that any of the proposals would still need to be compliant with the Byrd rule — a snag that sank progressives hopes of passing the $15 per hour minimum wage as part of the coronavirus package. 

But Democrats could potentially use the extra shots at reconciliation to break up their infrastructure package, pass more COVID-19 relief, change the eligibility age for Medicare or raise the debt ceiling.

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It could also all be for naught. 

To use reconciliation, Democrats need all 50 of their members on board with a policy. 

Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinIs the Constitution in the way of DC statehood? Biden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Joe Manchin is wrong — D.C. statehood is constitutional MORE (D-W.Va.) has indicated that in addition to opposing nixing the 60-vote legislative filibuster he’s also not sold on the widespread use of reconciliation. 

“We should all be alarmed at how the budget reconciliation process is being used by both parties to stifle debate around the major issues facing our country today,” Manchin wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

But top Democrats have signaled that they will likely pass most, if not all, of Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure and spending plan under reconciliation. 

Though Democrats are having talks with their GOP colleagues about what a bipartisan bill could look like, they face an uphill stretch amid deep divisions with Republicans over how to pay for a bill and what qualifies as “infrastructure.” Meanwhile, progressives are pushing their party to go well beyond Biden's plan to also include things like health care, child care and even immigration.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response Briahna Joy Gray: Warren not endorsing Sanders in 2020 was 'really frustrating' House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill MORE (I-Vt.) told reporters he was “working on” what needed to be done before Democrats could revise the fiscal 2021 resolution that they previously used to pass the coronavirus bill.

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But, he added, “nobody” knows what’s going to be in the next reconciliation package. 

“I'm glad that you're asking me about a question that nobody knows the answer to,” he said.